pissed as a newt

Discuss word origins and meanings.

pissed as a newt

Post by Archived Topic » Sat Jun 26, 2004 10:20 am

In the posting three sheets to the wind, meaning very drunk, the synonym PISSED AS A NEWT was mentioned and we drifted off topic a bit, as we are wont to do, to discuss this phrase. And the the topic is interesting enough that I thought it deserves a home of its own and so I am copying the related NEWT discussion over to here.

Forum Moderator (a.k.a. Ken G) – July 4, 2010
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Re: three sheets to the wind

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Jun 30, 2010 4:52 pm

Isn't it just an expression?

"Albert is as pissed as a newt". I admit that I do not spend my time face down in bogs looking for amphibians, but I am pretty sure that I have never seen a pissed newt.

“Joe is legless” Well if he is, what are those things between his feet and his arse?
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Signature: All those years gone to waist!
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three sheets to the wind

Post by TomT » Wed Jun 30, 2010 5:02 pm

Bobinwales wrote:Isn't it just an expression?

"Albert is as pissed as a newt". I admit that I do not spend my time face down in bogs looking for amphibians, but I am pretty sure that I have never seen a pissed newt.

“Joe is legless” Well if he is, what are those things between his feet and his arse?
Yes, it's just an expression, of course. That's why I start to come to the conclusion that the number of sheets mentioned is merely whimsical. Still it's very interesting to try to understand the origin of the expression.
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Re: three sheets to the wind

Post by Phil White » Wed Jun 30, 2010 6:26 pm

Bobinwales wrote:Isn't it just an expression?

"Albert is as pissed as a newt". I admit that I do not spend my time face down in bogs looking for amphibians, but I am pretty sure that I have never seen a pissed newt.

“Joe is legless” Well if he is, what are those things between his feet and his arse?
"Legless" is a nice, straightforward image. So drunk you may as well not have legs the amount of times your bum hits the floor.

"Pissed as a newt" has always intrigued me. Maybe Ken can do the dirty on that one as well. Although I do seem to remember crawling through Greenwich Park like this in my university days, so maybe it's an accurate image.

As far as the former is concerned, I still love the article in the Daily Telegraph many years ago:
A new public house at Martlesham, near Ipswich, has been named after Sir Douglas Bader, the RAF's legless wartime hero.
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Re: three sheets to the wind

Post by trolley » Wed Jun 30, 2010 7:29 pm

I always hear that expression as "pissed as a nit". I wonder if that is some sort of eggcorn or are nits notoriously hard drinking creatures, like fish or parrots or skunks? I found a couple of articles suggesting that the "newt" in question actually referred to that sad-faced guy who led the funeral processions in Victorian times. Nowhere, can I see any confirmation that they were called newts. They seem to have been called "mutes" and there is no mention of their drinking habits.

trolley getting sheet-faced
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Re: three sheets to the wind

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Wed Jun 30, 2010 11:32 pm

It's little wonder the old nautical types had so many sheets in the wind, what with splicing their mainbraces and indulging in all those sea-shandies.
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Re: three sheets to the wind

Post by Phil White » Thu Jul 01, 2010 6:51 pm

Sorry guys, we lost this thread for a while. All back again.
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pissed as a newt

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Jul 03, 2010 9:43 pm

Continued – I can't tell a lie, I goofed!

Ken G – July 3, 2010 (a.k.a Your bumbling Forum Moderator)
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Re: three sheets to the wind

Post by russcable » Sun Jul 04, 2010 12:41 am

trolley wrote:... or are nits notoriously hard drinking creatures ...
I would assume that the eggs of lice drink even less than amphibians.
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Re: pissed as a newt

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Jul 04, 2010 2:01 am

I’ll begin by saying that the origin of PISSED AS A NEWT is said to be UNCERTAIN/UNKNOWN, but there are no lack of theories and we will not be deterred.

Here is the OED’s definition and quotes for PISSED AS NEWT (they only listed two quotes) with the earliest being from 1957 – a fairly recent expression if they are correct – and the other being from 2002. And I would note that this appeared in their March, 2010, update (their latest and gratest). The rest were from archived sources.


PISSED Chiefly British. Also with up. Frequently in similative phrases, especially PISSED AS A NEWT. [[very intoxicated; ‘to be legless’ – there is no end to the synonyms for drunk. Also, the OED provides no discussion of the expression’s origin]]
<1957 “Christ, I'm pissed. I'm pissed as a newt.”—World of Suzie Wong, by R.Mason, II. i. page 111>

<1970 “He's as pissed as a newt! Jo. Some of them are pretty glassy-eyed in there. (Jo goes into the kitchen, Stephen into the living-room.) Stephen. (To the occupants of the living-room, as he enters.) Wine that maketh glad the heart of man!”—The Two of Us: four one-act play by M. Frayn, page 74>

<1995 “Drank like a fish until closing; got pissed as a newt on snakebite. Completely rat-arsed, he was.”—The Independent (London), 16 February>

<1998 “She tries to learn lip-reading, and hears ‘pleased to see you’ as ‘pissed as a newt’ . . .”—The Independent (London), 4 October>

<2000 “Then, no matter how sober he is, announce he is as pissed as a newt.”—The Independent (London), 2 May>

<2002 “Sitting there, full to the brim and pissed as a newt, I consider whether this or any other meal is worth $1,000.”—Ottawa Citizen (Nexis), 31 August, page E3>

<2005 “The lap dancer . . . arrives by falling from one balcony to the next.. . . and normative Justin . . . must hold together their dinner plans, even as Justin's mother, Arabella (. . . in full-on ‘AbFab mode) arrives, pissed as a newt.”—Daily Variety (Los Angles), 13 October> [[AbFab = Absolutely Fabulous]]

<2008 “‘This is an alcoholic beverage is it not?‘ ‘Nay, it’s booze love. You drink it t’ get legless’ says I. ‘Why would you wish to imbibea liquid the removed your legs?’ said Trev. ‘Nay, y’ prannit! [[prannet – a fool]] I don’t mean it cuts your legs off or owt, I mean it makes you get Pissed as a newt.’”—Close Encounters... of the Shirley Kind (2008) by L. Connolly, page 142>

<2009 “No, my fave is that story about Graham Coxon and the Camden butcher in the mid-Nineties. The pissed-as-a-newt Blur guitarist, who quit the band acrimoniously in 2002, took it into his head to steal a string of sausages from the window of the butcher's shop. . .”—Sunday Independent (Dublin, Ireland), 31 May>

<2010 “I basically hate being in a tour bus pissed as a newt like them and would ride in a car with some other actors, so I was comfortable and not subjected to actors who were drunk.”—Backstage (New York City), 26 April
(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)

Below I've listed some of the various theories for the origin of PISSED AS A NEWT, a few of which have already been mentioned in the above postings. I also provide some comments.

1) “I think this is a very well observed and appropriate idiom: when a newt walks on dry land, it wobbles from side to side as it advances, like a very drunk person.” [[not from a stellar source, but not a bad idea]]

2) “In as drunk or tight or pissed as a newt, very drunk indeed: Services’, probably originally army officers’: 20th century: Perhaps more often, at first, tight, but since WW2 usually pissed . . . The newt is amphibious reptile, with a tight-fitting skin.]”—A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge.

['Tight’ for drunk – 1840. A newt is a small salamander which is ‘scaleless and covered with a soft moist skin’ (M-W Unabridged)]]. I’ve seen plenty of small salamanders and even had some as a kid, and ‘tight’ skin wasn’t a characteristic that jumped out at me – but since above and below, enough folks have said so, it must be true! Also, all the folks who say tight as a newt preceded pissed as a newt, and even those who just discuss pissed as a newt, with the exception of Eric Partridge, never provide a single example/quote nor a single date, other than saying “in the Victorian period.” At least Eric Partridge (a very reliable source) did this by providing a more realistic time frame (20th century) with mentions of WW1 for tight and WW2 for pissed in tight/pissed as a newt.]

3) “‘Is it accurate to say pissed as a newt?’ ‘No. Few people who say this expression have a clear idea of what a newt actually is. It is a lizard-like creature that resembles a New Zealand gecko. Some species are aquatic and some are not. The reasons for describing anyone as pissed as a newt are mysterious, though it is conjectured that because some newts live in water, this gave someone the fanciful notion of their being totally immersed in ‘drink'. Another theory suggests that because a newt's skin fits neatly over a rather complex body shape, it could have engendered the expression tight as a newt. This later evolved in two separate ways-- tight moved away as a stand-alone word meaning drunk, and the word pissed [[1929] moved in and replaced tight[[1840]].”—Sunday Star-Times (Auckland, New Zealand), 19 October, 2003>

[[The interesting thing is that I was unable to find any example of tight as a newt in any reliable source, although Partridge and others did say it existed in the 20th century, but it sure didn’t leave much of a paper trail. Even Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (87,500 words and phrases) which lists pissed as a newt (1950s) missed it. And I would go with Partridge’s above suggestion that drunk/tight/pissed as a newt were 20th century inventions. And the only examples of tight as a newt that I could come up with were from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. How did this supposedly early expression do such an exceptional job of hiding itself?]]

4) “Because the effects of boozing have traditionally been seen in a comic light, albeit one which frequently reveals darker undertones. ‘Pissed as a newt,’ for example, is said to have originated in the Victorian era, when professional mourners were called newts, and would therefore have been expected to drown their many though impersonal sorrows with a few glasses of grog.”—Evening Standard (London), 30 December, 2008>

[[Victorian period is circa 1840-1900. I found no evidence of a professional mourner being called a ‘newt (and I took a very hard look) and it’s passing strange that if pissed as a newt originated in the Victorian era, that the OED found the earliest quote to be from 1957. Could such a good expression have really taken 50 to 100 years to find its way into print?]]

5) “In a less formal context, to be in an alcoholic stupor is more commonly known as to be mute], flogged, maggoted, shitfaced, off one's nut, plastered or pissed as a newt.—australianbeers.com

[[And, of course, beer drinkers of Australia are without a doubt the most knowledgeable source on drunkenness that one could hope to find. Hmm! So one meaning of MUTE is 'drunk.' But does it have some other meaning that may be relevant to our discussion? A quick trip to several OneLook dictionaries produced nada. But then I checked old reliable – the OED – and BINGO! – MUTE: A professional mourner at funerals. What an interesting tidbit – I smell a possible eggcorn! That is, a word that is a mishearing and mispronunciation of a similar sounding word.]]

6a) “Mutes and professional mourners: From about 1600 to 1914, there were two professions in Europe now almost totally forgotten. The mute is depicted in art quite frequently but in literature is probably best known from Dickens' ‘Oliver Twist.’ Oliver is working for Sowerberry's when this conversation takes place: ‘There's an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear . . . which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love.’ The main purpose of a funeral mute was to stand around at funerals with a sad, pathetic face. A symbolic protector of the deceased, the mute would usually stand near the door of the home or church. In Victorian times, mutes would wear somber clothing including black cloaks, top hats with trailing hatbands, and gloves.”—Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development (1926) by B. S. Puckle (London: T. W. Laurie Ltd.) [[In Wikipedia with this reference provided]]

6b) OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIOARY (June 2010 update): MUTE noun: A professional attendant at a funeral; a hired mourner.
<1762 “Forty gentlemen . . . submitted to wait as mutes with their backs against the wall of the chamber where the body laid in state.”— Anecdotes of Painting in England (1786) collected by G. Vertue 1762-71) by Horace Walpole, II.iii. page124>

<1842 “There he saw the two mutes and the hearse at the door.”—Literary Gazette (London, 31 December, page 897/2>

<1892 “Those who had met at the depot like a pair of mutes, sat down to table with holiday faces.”—Wrecker by R. L. Stevenson & L. Osbourne, i. page 28>

<1961 “That's why she slinks about the place like a funeral mute, is it?”—Service with a Smile by P. G. Wodehouse, i. page 16>

<1991 “Mutes, carrying black ostrich plumes, are out of favour.”—Masks of Death (BNC) by R. Cecil, page 11>

<2008 “The name of the great moose head that’s hanging on the wall. He’s great to talk to when you come home, pissed as a mute.”—Why shouldn't I call my son Clint? by D. Hocking, page 204>
(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and arrchived sources)

So here’s my take:

The idea that newts were professional mourners in the Victorian era (circa 1840-1900) defies credulity. How could a word at these late dates have not appeared anywhere that I could find. Not in the OED, not in any dictionary of slang or otherwise, not in any book, newspaper or journal and I looked through plenty.

The only thing that does make some sense to me in the above, is that the original word was not NEWT, but MUTE, which has the same ‘professional mourner’ meaning. What we have here appears to be an eggcorn. I think John (a.k.a. trolley) was on the right track when he said PISSED AS NIT (which, incidentally, gave a miniscule number of hits – basically down in the noise) with the NIT being John’s eggcorn for NEWT. And I think there is a strong possibility that NEWT was an egghorn for MUTE.

The MUTE dates back to the mid-eighteenth century and its use is documented from then right up to modern times. The only hole in this argument, however, is that try as I could, I was unable to come up with an example of PISSED AS A MUTE or tight as a mute, which logically seems like they should have preceded PISSED AS A NEWT. And I don’t see any compelling reason for the MUTES to get drunk, but perhaps that was one of their peculiar well-known habits.

On the other hand, PISSED AS A NEWT, contrary to all other implications (Victorian period, etc.) didn’t show up until 1957 (OED) – and I’m sure the OED did a pretty thorough quote search, and one much better than mine, (with the power and company resources at their disposal in 2010). So perhaps whoever coined PISSED AS A NEWT (since WWII, as Partridge says, in agreement with Cassell's 1950s) maybe in was aware of what he thought was NEWT but which was actually MUTE, which he maybe heard from his mother or grandmother . . .and mispronounced as NEWT. Or maybe his mother or grandmother had mispronounced it also. However, I was unable to find an example in print of PISSED AS A MUTE (very disappointing), so perhaps this is one of those examples of a phrase being passed down by grandmothers, etc., but never making it into print (Wiz will love that) except in the mispronounced form.

Incidentally, anyone in Wordwizard land who can come up with an actual early (pre-1950s) example of PISSED/TIGHT AS A MUTE/NEWT, and not just slang dictionaries and other sources spouting 'Victorian period,' should immediately make it known – it may be your ticket to fame and fortune!

So, after giving this my best shot – one doesn't always win at BINGO! – the origin of PISSED AS A NEWT still remains, as some wise etymologists have said, UNCERTAIN/UNKNOWN (>;), although I think I did add an interesting twist with my NEWT for MUTE revelation. (<:)

Ken – July 3, 2010
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Re: pissed as a newt

Post by Phil White » Sun Jul 04, 2010 2:33 am

Thanks for that, Ken.

Here's another tack for you to try:
"drunk as a newt" gets about 6000 google hits, and "drunk as a mute" even gets 4.

Is it possible that the original phrase was "drunk as a mute/newt" and the "pissed" version became popular later? Perhaps you're only finding "pissed as a newt" later because "pissed" only became really popular later.

Just an idea.
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Re: pissed as a newt

Post by Phil White » Sun Jul 04, 2010 2:44 am

Here's an annoying, tantalizing quote for you:
Thou art both as drunk and as mute as a fish.
William Congreve, The Way of the World, 1700
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Re: pissed as a newt

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jul 05, 2010 7:37 am

Phil, Your above two postings provided food for thought.
Phil White wrote: Here's an annoying, tantalizing quote for you:
Thou art both as drunk and as mute as a fish.
William Congreve, The Way of the World, 1700
Here’s the full quote:
<1704 “[To them] PETULANT drunk.: “Now, Petulant? All’s over, all’s well? Gad, my head begins to whim it about. Why dost though not speak? Thou art both as drunk and mute as a fish.”—The Way of the World by William Congreve, page 93> [[two sources provided this as their earliest in print use of DRUNK AS A FISH (The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs and Allen’s Dictionary of English Phrases)
The MUTE in the above quote clearly means ‘not talking,’ but I don’t think that the DRUNK AS A FISH can be said to have any definite meaning other than possibly its way of moving or it being submerged in water/booze. But it may be that for these types of expressions it doesn’t have to have a lot of meaning. As the author says below in the 1977-1978 quote, “understanding ‘newt,’ [[etc.]] . . . actually hinders understanding these expressions), [[they]] are idiomatic.”

Bobinwales (above) may have had it right when he said at the top of this thread “Isn't it just an expression?” An expression where the elements don’t have any literal meaning with respect to the phrase.

Here’s a listing of DRUNK AS A NEWT quotes, and again the oldest quote I could find was from the modern era –surprisingly, the same year as the OED’s PISSED AS A NEWT, 1957. They appear to have been contemporaries, so we can’t use the enticing idea that the pissed/tight as a newt evolved from an older drunk as a newt.
<1957 “Drunk as newts.”—Sugar for the Horse by H.E. Bates, page134>

<1959 “As drunk as a newt.”—A Breath of Fresh Air by H. E. Bates, page 134>

<1961 “As pickled (plastered) as a newt.”—Down Among by P. Moyers, page75> [[No ‘drunk,’ but couldn’t pass up a good one]]

<1962 “Drunk as newts.”—The golden Oriole: Five Novellas by H. E. Bates, page 142> [variation]

<1968 “A book comes along to define such terms as La-Di-Dah; scabby; tetchy; he gets on my wick; drunk as a newt; shag; bijous; and gritty.”—Miami News (Florida), 22 October,page 14>

<1977-1978 “Expressions like ‘drunk as a newt,’ ‘mad as a coot’ (understanding ‘newt’ and ‘coot’ actually hinders understanding these expressions), are idiomatic, i.e, literal, i.e., not similes.”—Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 78, page 133> [[I was doing O.K. until he got to ‘idiomatic, i.e, literal, not similes.’ I thought that ‘idiomatic’ was basically the opposite of ‘literal.’ Does anyone understand what this person is getting at if the ‘not’ in front of literal is intentionally excluded? My feeling is that it’s a typo. Also see 1994 posting below.]]

<1994 ‘Dammann . . . warns us off idiomatic expression, i.e. conventional expressions with a meaning different form their literal meaning including those that look like similes, such as ‘as drunk as a newt,’. . .”— New directions in Economic Methodology by R. Backhouse, page 394>

<2008 “AS DRUNK AS A NEWT”—A Yorkshire Miscellany by Tom Holman, in section titled ‘Yorkshire Similes,’ page 184> [[This is as a collection of current popular Yorkshire expressions and no dates are provided]]

Here are some other DRUNK AS expressions from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs that show in some cases a lack of any literal meaning and the fact that they are idioms and not similes. Note also that these are sayings, which the author said he chose to include in his book, and are not proverbs. But they do establish that without a doubt the form AS DRUNK AS is the granddaddy of many of our slang expressions for intoxication.




DRUNK AS A SWINE (or HOG, PIG, SOW (circa 1440)

DRUNK AS AN APE (circa 1500)








DRUNK AS A BESOM (1888) [a broom, especially one made with a bundle of twigs]







Here is a sampling of DRUNK AS expressions from the Oxford English Dictionary that are not listed above:




AS DRUNK AS A BLOOD (uncertain: aristocratic rowdies of the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century)

AS DRUNK AS ALL HELL (1768-1770)

AS DRUNK AS A FISH (1797) [the century is right – see Phil’s above quote]

AS DRUNK AS A COOTER (1827) [cooter = tortoise]





It’s not in Wordsworth , but no list would be complete without DRUNK AS A SKUNK (first half of 20th century), which obviously gained fame from the rhyme. The Oxford Dictionary of Slang is clearly wrong with its 1981 dating. In a cursory search I found two earlier examples The first was from 1951 in the Journal Western Folklore, Vol. 10, No.3. July, page 250. The second was from 1953 in theCharleston Daily Mail (West Virginia), 25 May.

And now a few AS PISSED AS expressions from the Oxford English Dictionary, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and the abominable New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Dalzell & Victor [[D & L]]. It’s a shame that Partridge’s good name was attached to this work. However, it’s not completely useless if you ignore the wrong dates and other errors. It does supply some words and phrases not listed elsewhere and quotes (along with some misquotes), but they expended no effort to include first in print examples.

Note: The word PISSED, meaning drunk, first appeared in print in 1929 (OED).




PISSED AS A FART (1960s) Cassell’s

PISSED AS A FART; PISSED AS A BREWER’S FART (1998) D & L [[look at the above two and notice the date disparity]]

PISSED AS A NEWT (1977) D & L [[only 20 years later than the 1957 quote provided by the OED]]


PISSED AS A PARROT (1977) D & L [[not bad compared to Cassell’s 1980s and clearly chosen for the alliteration]]

PISSED AS A CHOOK (1980s) Cassell’s [[‘chook’ = chicken]]



Here are a few TIGHT AS expressions from the OED, but they are much rarer:

AS TIGHT AS A PEEP (1864) [“‘Peep’ is a . . . little bird found in New England. . . . He is given to staggering about in an imbecile and helpless manner.”]



So, there are some of these types of expressions where one can see a connection right off (e.g.drunk as a wheelbarrow; some where there is a connection if you do a bit of research (e.g. drunk as David’s sow; and some where there seems to be no logical connection at all, e.g. drunk as a rat, drunk as an owl, drunk as muck). But there may perhaps be a connection in some, that motivated the coining of the expression, but which we’re not aware of (e.g. drunk as a newt; drunk as an owl, drunk as swine, etc. However, distinguishing one from another isn’t always easy or, in fact, it may sometimes be impossible, which unfortunately may very well be the case with our PISSED AS A NEWT.

Ken – July 4, 2010 [resigned to the possibility that the origin of pissed as newt is now, and may never be, classified as anything but UNKNOWN – Maybe, as Bob said, it's just an expression after all.] (>;)
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Re: pissed as a newt

Post by Phil White » Mon Jul 05, 2010 10:50 am

As ever, thanks again, Ken.

You are right about the missing "not", and they are warning us against doing exactly what we are doing, namely looking for a literal meaning or at least an explanation based on a literal foundation for a non-literal expression (as Bob said, it's just an expression). Although these phrases take the form of similes, they are not themselves similes.

It seems to me that there is something like a "pseudo-simile" in the game.

Similes have a structure like this:
As xxx as something that is archetypally xxx
(as tall as a tree)
The pseudo-similes have a structure like this:
As xxx as something that sounds funny and in possibly some way resonates with xxx
Similes can be read literally, but pseudo-similes cannot.

What we have been trying to do is to identify whether there is any literal basis for reading the phrase as a simile or alternatively identify what the resonance is that makes the phrase sound so apt.

Of course, as usual there is no clear demarcation between the two forms, as your list of "as drunk as...." expressions shows. We have "as drunk as a blood", which is a literal simile, "as drunk as a lord", which suggests extravagant, opulent drunkenness, as does "as drunk as an emperor" (both could be read as similes), "as drunk as a fish", which resonates heavily because of the idea of being immersed in liquid, "as drunk as an ape", which resonates because of bizarre behaviour, "as drunk as a wheelbarrow", which resonates because of the movement, and "as drunk as a besom", which seems to have no resonance (to our ears today), but which sounds funny nevertheless.

No definitive answers, but good fun on the way. A bit like life really.
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Re: pissed as a newt

Post by Phil White » Mon Jul 05, 2010 10:53 am

And before we all go there, [url=http://freaky_freya.tripod.com/Drunktionary/A-B.html]somebody's already done it[/url].
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